Is You Is, or Is You Ain’t, My Pedagogy

Written by Sam Ladwig, M.F.A, Assistant Professor, Design – 

I teach a creative thinking class that is intentionally unorthodox. It falls into the “healthy life skills” category of core coursework at the University of Central Oklahoma, but it is ultimately a critical thinking course. Although I use several readings from Shane Show’s book Smart Cuts as a guide, there is no “content” in the traditional sense. Further, all of the assignments are pass/fail, and there is no limit on extra credit. Students either participate in what is prepared, or they customize the assignments for their own purposes. The primary learning objective is to explore wonder, curiosity, and play as creative inputs that help generate new questions as well as innovative approaches to solving them, but another objective is for each student to actively construct a positive learning environment that enhances their professional and personal development, especially with regard to metacognitive skills. Many students have written reflection essays that indicate changes in perspective that seem to meet the standard of “transformation,” while others have found it to be somewhat ambiguous and disjointed.

At the most recent UCO Collegium, I was intrigued by the keynote presentation/workshop given by Dr. Claire Major on “7 Evidence-Based Principles for High-Impact Instructional Practice” based on her book, Learning Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. In particular, I found the handouts extremely valuable in identifying specific ways to introduce high impact practices into my existing lectures. These practices seemed like they may help me make a bit more sense out of the complex and tangled creative process and the inherently nonlinear path of generating ideas and developing solutions. So, I ran back to my desk and developed a series of guided questions for two of my courses, Design Foundations II and the course mentioned above, Innovation and Inquiry. In Design Foundations II the use of pre-session quizzes and guided skeletal notes worked like a charm. I was able to highlight prior knowledge (right or wrong) and then go through the lectures with the students already primed to focus on the material.

Here’s the rub. (I know you’re so schooled in the ways of TL you already know the problem.) This very same practice seems to have ruined the environment I have worked so hard to create with the design of Innovation and Inquiry. Guided questions are extremely efficient at helping students condense a chapter into manageable chunks as well as to focus their attention on its explicit message, but that was precisely the problem. I had helped students summarize the author’s point of view instead of using the author’s observations as a starting point for a discussion. The goal of these readings is to explore each student’s perspective on the topic in order to find innovative ways that it could apply to their situation or find opportunities to apply it in new contexts. Instead, I had distilled the topic into clear concise bullet points that could be identified, verified, and set aside. Material that had previously extended a discussion beyond the class period was being covered in half the time, making me look unprepared and boring them to tears. The worst effect of this misapplied practice is that our discussions no longer wander off on tangents, which I believe is the true domain of innovation.

And yet… I recognize that I still need more structure in this course, so rather than regressing to my previous approach, I intend to use the high-impact practices in more specific contexts. By realigning some of the learning goals for this course, I was able to identify the part of the course that I could clarify while simultaneously increasing the learning potential of our discussions. In chapter 6 of How Learning Works by Ambrose et al., the authors explain a framework for understanding stages of intellectual development: dualism, multiplicity, relativism and commitment. Explicitly using this chapter (along with guided questions) as part of the foundation for both divergent and convergent thinking seems to be an appropriate way to clarify the potential of the activities and ensuing discussions without limiting the discussions themselves.

With Innovation and Inquiry, I am trying to help them learn how to learn while reflecting on how each of us is affected by and can have an effect on the world around us. It’s right there in the course title. It’s about new questions. I am not trying to lead them to water. I am trying to help them learn how to lead themselves to water.

I’ll let you know how it goes…



Ambrose, S. A. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Barkley, E. F., & Major, C. H. (2016). Learning assessment techniques: A handbook for college faculty.

Snow, S. (2014). Smartcuts: How hackers, innovators and icons accelerate business.

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